Nobody’s Child, by Susan Nordin Vinocour

Susan Nordin Vinocour, in her personal and legal history of the insanity defense Nobody’s Child, frequently leans on literary sources to encapsulate certain important points. One of these sources perfectly expresses what I think is the core of our societal misunderstanding of mental illness. Samuel Johnson said, as captured in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), “If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards.” We fear what we do not understand. Fear leads us to react before we can understand. And, as Vincour shows us, fear and misunderstanding can often lead to tragedy and injustice.

For years, Vinocour has worked as a forensic psychologist. She evaluates people to see if they are competent to stand trial and provides expert testimony for both prosecutors and defense attorneys. In Nobody’s Child, she returns to the case of Dorothy Dunn. In the mid-1990s, Dunn’s grandson, Raymie, died in an accidental fall. But, for a variety of reasons that Vinocour uncovers in her evaluation, Dunn fails to notify the authorities of her grandson’s injury and subsequent death for three days. Public opinion is immediately against Dunn. Why didn’t she call for an ambulance or the police? Why is there a sore on the boy’s ankle, showing that he was restrained? What about the testimony that Dunn hit her grandson and that the boy was always hungry? I admit all this sounds damning. Vinocour admits this, too. Her first knowledge of the case came from seeing Dunn led out of her home on TV. Vinocour was ready to condemn Dunn right out of the gate and says as much to the public defender who asks the psychologist to evaluate Dunn.

Dunn’s case serves as an anchor for Vinocour’s exploration of the insanity defense from the Middle Ages to the present. It also provides telling examples of how, in spite of the popular misconception that the insanity defense is an easy ticket out of jail, the deck is stacked against the mentally ill from the get-go—especially if they’re poor. Vinocour’s legal history reveals two competing lines of thought. On the one hand, there is the old principle of “furiosus solo furore punitur.” This Latin phrase means that the mad are only punished by their madness. It’s not just to punish the mentally ill more than they are already tormented by their illness. Further, their illness means that they could not have understood the legal ramifications of their actions. Other legal scholars and politicians countered with the argument that even the mad must know that murder is wrong and should, therefore be punished. This side of the debate has, historically, carried the day as Vinocour illustrates with historical examples such as Charles Guiteau and Daniel M’Naughten. Legally speaking, a person has to be extremely mentally ill in order to have a chance at being found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. Vinocour also points out that many jurors do not realize that, if someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity, they will be sentenced to an indefinite sentence in a mental health facility. They might not face the death penalty, but they might serve more time in a hospital than they might if they’d been sent to prison.

To return to Dunn, Vinocour shows us that legal wrangling is not the only thing at play in cases of mental illness and crime. Dunn is intellectually impaired, depressed, uneducated, and very poor. She only has an overworked public defender to take on her case. Because Dunn is also accused of child abuse, everyone’s hackles are up. Vinocour spends several sessions with Dunn in jail, trying to understand the woman’s thinking process in the months leading up to her grandson’s death and immediately after. Vinocour provides so much context for Dunn’s case that the jury never hear. We learn about the behavioral effects of Raymie’s high levels of lead in his blood and how unprepared Dunn was for helping him. We learn that Dunn was so lacking in basic medical knowledge that she wasn’t aware of her pregnancies until she went into labor; she showed up at the emergency room complaining of indigestion in one instance. We also learn of her troubling history with local children’s protection services, who were so determined to place children with relatives that they steamrolled over a woman with no resources or emotional ability to care for more children. By the end of Nobody’s Child, I came to the conclusion that what happened to Dorothy Dunn and Raymie was everyone’s fault.

I was equally fascinated, appalled, and outraged by what I read in Nobody’s Child. I deeply appreciated the depth of research Vinocour presented. This book is a deep and thoughtful dive into a legal question that most of us only know about from TV and movies. This book is also an important revelation of just how broken our justice and child protection services are in the United States. So much needs to be reformed and so many attitudes need to be changed to prevent more cases like Dunn’s and Raymie’s. A good legal defense shouldn’t be possible only for the wealthy. Children’s protection services need resources that would allow them to take more time with their clients and have more options for placing children. Prosecutors, judges, and juries need to be better educated about mental illness. Above all, we need to listen with more compassion instead of letting our fear of mental illness condemn people at first sight.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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